Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book review: "All Brave Sailors" by J. Revell Carr

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a thousand miles from land, two men in a lifeboat consider their fate. It has been three weeks since their ship sunk. They are dying of thirst, starvation and exposure to the unrelenting sun.

So they decide to end their lives.

Bob Tapscott and Roy Widdicombe climb into the water, intending to end their misery by floating away and disappearing beneath the waves. But the cool water seems to change their mood and they climb back into the boat. After a short wait, they decide again that it is time to die. They slip into the water and Tapscott starts to float away. But Widdicombe clings to the boat's lifeline.

Angry, Tapscott returns to the boat. He and Widdicombe argue, then both climb back into the boat. They will not kill themselves, at least not today. Soon they notice something that had an escaped their attention before. Their compass is filled with a liquid that allows the device to spin freely. It's alcohol.

Carefully, they open the compass -- perhaps their most important possession at this moment -- and empty out the few ounces of alcohol it contains. They split it among themselves and drink it. Soon they are so drunk they forget they're on the brink of death.

This is just one scene in the true survival story that lies at the heart of "All Brave Sailors," by J. Revell Carr. I've read many of the best survival stories -- "Unbroken," "The Long Walk," and accounts of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic ordeal -- and the story told in this book is equally as amazing as any of them.

The trouble is, the tale of how men from the Anglo-Saxon freighter survived an attack by a Nazi merchant raider in 1940 is only part of "All Brave Sailors."  Carr tries to fit a lot into this book -- possibly too much -- as he covers some 50 years of events around the globe.

Many of the pieces are interesting, but the desperate ordeal of the British sailors is the only part that is truly gripping.  And Carr struggles to fit everything in a form that flows smoothly.

"All Brave Sailors" is truly about three men -- Tapscott, Widdicombe and Hellmuth Vonk Ruckteschell, the commander of the German "commerce raider" that ruthlessly destroyed the Anglo-Saxon on Aug. 21, 1940. Carr traces the lives of these three men before and after their fates intersected on that day.

Carr fumbles around at the beginning of the book trying to fit the disparate elements in. The first problem is right on the cover, which suggests that "All Brave Sailors" is only about the events in the lifeboat. This is misleading -- nearly half of the book is about the life of Ruckteschell.

The cover of the book also gives away too much, telling us how long the sailors were stranded on the ocean. Even worse, the very first thing that you see as you start the book is an annotated map that gives away multiple key points in the story. Talk about spoilers.

At the outset, the book hops strangely, starting with a hurried description of the attack on the Anglo-Saxon, then jumps backward to start the biography of Ruckteschell. In the third chapter, Carr gives us biographies of key sailors on the Anglo-Saxon, but we have no context for them. We don't know how each sailor is important to the story. It would be better to insert these as the characters emerge in the narrative.

Here's what I suggest: Avoid looking at the map until late in the book. Skip the first part of the book and start with chapter 5. It's not perfect -- you might want to skip back to fill in a few details -- but it gets you into the meat of the story with less confusion.

From there, the book gets much better. Carr has done tremendous research and he fills in details beautifully. He describes the way the Widder, the German commerce raider, cleverly disguised its guns so as to appear as an ordinary merchant ship. During the lifeboat section, we can really feel the misery of the sailors as they slide from hopes of rescue to desperation and, for some, death.

The book has some surprising moments but I don't want to spoil things by giving them away here.

In the end, I think Carr is too soft on Ruckteschell, the German commander.  This is a man who was essentially a terrorist, sneaking up on unarmed ships, attacking with multiple guns and torpedoes, and sending many defenseless men to their deaths. Carr catalogs the commander's war crimes carefully, but he doesn't seem to have the hatred for the German that I developed as I read it.

If you're interested in the history of German commerce raiders you might be interested in "The Wolf" by Richard Guilliott.

If you like survival stories of men lost at seas, consider "Adrift" by Steven Callahan, and "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick.

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Microsoft Office 365 could delete everything on your phone

Why would ANYONE agree to this?

My company recently began using Microsoft's Office 365 for accessing work email on a cell phone. As I was setting it up on my phone, I got this message:

"Outlook.office365.com requires that you allow it to remotely control some security features of your Android device."

Hmmm, I thought, what does that mean?  Reading on, it said that if I activated this software, I would be allowing Office 365 to do various things, including, "Erase all data."

Um, what?

If installed, Office 365 could, if it wanted, "Erase the phone's data without warning by performing a factory data reset."

So at time, everything on your phone -- pictures, contacts, texts, apps, e-books -- could be completely deleted without any control by you.

Again: Why would ANYONE agree to this?

I certainly didn't.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

What if electoral votes were proportional to state population?

One of the oddities of the electoral college system in electing the U.S. president is that some voters' ballots count for more than others. This is because electoral votes are not proportional to the states' populations.

Yes, big states do get more electoral votes, but not as many as they would if the votes were allocated proportionally. For instance, California gets 55 electoral votes, while Wyoming, the smallest state, gets 3. This mean California gets 18 times more electoral votes than Wyoming. But California actually has 67 times the population of Wyoming.

Under the electoral college, voters in small states get disproportionate sway. A vote cast in a small state can count for more than three times as much as one cast in large state.

What would happen if electoral votes were allocated proportional to state population? I took Census population numbers for all the states, created a "proportional" electoral vote division and applied them to the results for the 2016 election.

All the small states in this experiment got 1 vote. California, the largest state, got the most, 67. Some other states got more, others fewer. (You can see the breakdown below.) Because of the way this calculation was done, I ended up with a total of 548 electoral votes, slightly more than the real 538.

The results? Well ... not much difference. Under my scenario, Donald Trump would have received 292 votes to Hillary Clinton's 239, with Michigan still undecided as I write this.  The actual result was 290 for Trump versus 232 for Clinton (again, not counting Michigan).

Yes, I'm surprised this didn't change things much. Still, in a different election, proportional electoral vote allocation could change the result, especially if one candidate gets most large states while another get mostly small ones.

State Actual electoral votes Proportional votes Winner
Alabama 9 8 Trump
Alaska 3 1 Trump
Arizona 11 12 Trump
Arkansas 6 5 Trump
California 55 67 Clinton
Colorado 9 9 Clinton
Connecticut 7 6 Clinton
Delaware 3 2 Clinton
District of Columbia 3 1 Clinton
Florida 29 35 Trump
Georgia 16 17 Trump
Hawaii 4 2 Clinton
Idaho 4 3 Trump
Illinois 20 22 Clinton
Indiana 11 11 Trump
Iowa 6 5 Trump
Kansas 6 5 Trump
Kentucky 8 8 Trump
Louisiana 8 8 Trump
Maine 4 2 Clinton
Maryland 10 10 Clinton
Massachusetts 11 12 Clinton
Michigan 16 17
Minnesota 10 9 Clinton
Mississippi 6 5 Trump
Missouri 10 10 Trump
Montana 3 2 Trump
Nebraska 5 3 Trump
Nevada 6 5 Clinton
New Hampshire 4 2 Clinton
New Jersey 14 15 Clinton
New Mexico 5 4 Clinton
New York 29 34 Clinton
North Carolina 15 17 Trump
North Dakota 3 1 Trump
Ohio 18 20 Trump
Oklahoma 7 7 Trump
Oregon 7 7 Clinton
Pennsylvania 20 22 Trump
Rhode Island 4 2 Clinton
South Carolina 9 8 Trump
South Dakota 3 1 Trump
Tennessee 11 11 Trump
Texas 38 47 Trump
Utah 6 5 Trump
Vermont 3 1 Clinton
Virginia 13 14 Clinton
Washington 12 12 Clinton
West Virginia 5 3 Trump
Wisconsin 10 10 Trump
Wyoming 3 1 Trump

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ode to a Nike bag

In 1998, I signed up for a biking and hiking trip through China with my then-girlfriend Barb (now my wife). It was to be my first true overseas trip – I don't think going to Bermuda counts –  and certainly my most exotic vacation.

For nearly six months, I prepared for the trip, learning to speak some Mandarin, reading books about China and researching the places we would visit. But barely 24 hours after we arrived, near-disaster struck: The zipper on my primary piece of luggage broke.
A final look at my bag before heading to the trashcan

Now you may not consider a broken zipper a near-disaster, but at the time I had no idea what to do. The zipper couldn't be fixed and I certainly couldn't use the bag. At home, I would run to Target and just buy a new one. But we were in a foreign country, with no car, and I had no idea how I was going to carry all my belongings around for the next two weeks.

Something needed to be done fast because our small tour group was due to get on a train soon. As an interim measure, one of our guides retrieved a duffel bag from storage that Barb had brought (the bag had been holding camping gear we would be using later in the trip). I could use that for now. But I still had to find another bag.

After our train trip, we spent a night in the city of Xian and then cycled through the countryside the next day, stopping for the night in a small city. Exploring the town that evening, Barb and I found a store selling bags.

These weren't expensive luggage pieces, but something more like workout-gear bags. We looked around and I finally selected a simple black-and-teal bag with "Nike" on the side. I liked it because it was large. It cost me about $5. I figured it would be good enough to get my stuff home.

It did indeed get my stuff home –  and then some. Over the years, I used the bag frequently to carry things like books, clothes and groceries. It worked well for hauling almost anything.

Eventually, the zipper broke, but I kept using the bag. A few small holes appeared but I still kept using it. Finally this year, with the number and size of the holes growing, the end came for my bag. With a touch of wistfulness, I dropped it in a garbage can.

If you say Chinese-made products don't last, I will tell you the story of the bag that did 18 years of hard work. Not bad for $5.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Dear Los Angeles Metro: What's wrong?

I sent this email to Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transit Agency today:

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Dear Metro:

I have been riding the Blue Line to and from downtown Los Angeles for about 18 years. I have taken thousands of trips. Not all of them have gone perfectly, of course, but generally I have found the Blue Line to be a reliable way to get to work.

Not anymore.

Every day now, as the train gets close to downtown (north of San Pedro station), it starts a series of unscheduled stops. Sometimes, we're told, we have to wait for an Expo Line train. Sometimes, there's a train in the tunnel ahead of us. Sometime, it's just a mystery.

Each time, the delays add up. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. EVERY day.

I listened to the phone conversation of a fellow passenger the other day as he tried to explain to his boss that he would be late, AGAIN, because of Blue Line delays. He was clearly on the verge of losing his job.

If Metro can't provide reliable service it is going to lose some of its most loyal customers. For the first time in 18 years, I am considering going back to driving to work.

So please be honest with me: Are you going to fix these problems or are these delays the "new normal"?

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See also: "The day I got punched in the face."

Friday, October 28, 2016

Book review: "The Crash Detectives" by Christine Negroni

Depending on your perspective, "The Crash Detectives" may thrill -- or chill.

In this 2016 book, author Christine Negroni details the many ways that planes can crash.

Computers malfunction. Electrical systems fail. The plane itself ruptures. A sudden decompression causes pilots to collapse.

If you're the nervous type, this might leave you anxious about your next flight. But for those who like stories of danger, mystery and -- occasionally -- heroism, Negroni's book is a gripping read.

The book starts fast as Negroni offers her theory regarding the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 340 in 2014. She's only speculating, true, but she builds an impressive case based on knowledge of other aviation mishaps and detailed understanding of how planes work.

Negroni's expertise is impressive. She cites and describes many cases of crashes and near-crashes, aiming to find precisely what went wrong.

After the quick early start, the book slows down. I wasn't as interested in the section on crashes where the true causes have been covered up for political reasons. Not that those cases aren't important -- the mystery of the 1985 Gander crash that killed 248 did get me thinking -- but they tended to focus on backstabbing and cover-your-ass politicking that just wasn't as compelling as the rest of the book.

Negroni also made a tactical error in the last section of the book. In that section, she describes a variety of incidents where pilots' heroism or bold thinking prevented a crash, or at least made it less lethal. But she chose intertwine the stories, bouncing back and forth between them. Frankly, it gets confusing. It would have been better to tell each story separately.

That said, "The Crash Detectives" is still an engaging read. And for all the aviation perils described here, Negroni does make the point that air travel is still the safest way to get around.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Book review: "The Essential Retirement Guide" by Frederick Vettese

There are enough calculations, graphs and number-loaded tables in Frederick Vettese's "The Essential Retirement Guide" to send your average actuary into orgiastic heaven. For those who get their thrills comparing savings-rate projections, computing wealth targets and estimating spending patterns, this book is a page-turner.

Is it for the average reader? Not really. "The Essential Retirement Guide" goes far deeper into the weeds than most people need to go, or should go.

That said, Vettese does have some decent points to make. To save you the trouble of actually reading the book, let me see if I can sum them up.

  • Save 7% to 10% of your income for retirement during your working years. Add more during good times. 
  • In choosing investments, note that there is no correlation between high fees and high returns.
  • You will spend less in retirement, often a lot less.
  • The often-used rule of thumb that says you will need 70% of your pre-retirement income once you retire is wrong. Most people can be content with 50% or 60% of income, Vettese says, and some could go as low as 40%. This is good news for those who haven't saved very much for retirement.
  • We are living longer and you should plan for that. Check a lifespan calculator on the Internet to get an idea of how long you have left.
  • Annuities are good. It's better to put your retirement savings in an annuity and guarantee yourself income for life than to try to manage the money yourself and risk running out of funds before you die, Vettese says.
  • If you are managing your own money, withdrawing 5% a year in retirement is "relatively safe." That's bit more than the usual "4% rule."
  • The probability of requiring long-term care is 50% for women, 40% for men. It is better to set money aside for this possibility than to pay the high premiums of long-term care insurance. 
Confused by any of that? Well, I guess you'll have to look at the book.

Vettese is Canadian, so the book has a bit more than you would expect on considerations for Canadian citizens. Still, he does show knowledge of things like U.S. taxes and Social Security for American readers.

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